Michael Ruse thinks that if you’re a theistic evolutionist, you most probably believe the following three claims:

Evolution and the Bible are compatible

Much of the Bible (especially Genesis) should be interpreted metaphorically

When it comes to theology, “there is much to be said for a nice shade of grey” (2018, §6)

Kelly James Clark is a real life theistic evolutionist, and he seems to agree with Ruse's first claim: “theistic evolution holds both that God is Creator (a supernatural claim) and that species evolved through natural selection (a natural process)” (2014, 104). Clark is a philosopher by trade, but we can also find scientists who are theistic evolutionists. The molecular biologist Kenneth Miller is an excellent example. He gives us further reason to think that Ruse's second and third claims are right: “We are indeed Eden's children,” writes Miller, “yet it is time to place Genesis alongside the geocentric myth in the booklet of stories that once, in a world of intellectual naiveté, made sense” (1999, 56). Deborah Haarmsa is the president of the prominent theistic evolutionist organization BioLogos, and she puts the point as bluntly as can be: “Evolution is real. The Bible is true.” (2017, 124). And if you want more detail than that, she says that theistic evolution is the view that “God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and ... the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth” (125). It should be added that “God works with purpose and intent” (174).

What are these divine purposes and intentions? The geneticist Francis Collins—perhaps the most well-known proponent of theistic evolutionism—gives us some idea: “God had a specific plan for the arrival of humankind on the scene, and … He had a desire for personal fellowship with humans” (2006, 230). We find this idea echoed in the more recent writing of Andreas May: “It is important to the Creator that life can arise and develop in this universe”. It therefore follows that “the Creator of the universe deliberately intervened to promote the development of intelligent life” (2021, 28). The precise way in which the creator intervened must be such that it is not amenable to scientific investigation.

Speaking very generally, it is clear that theistic evolutionists believe that faith and evolution can get along. There is no conflict between the two. Religion and science can be friends.

Ironically enough though, theistic evolutionists find it difficult to make friends. On the one hand, proponents of “Intelligent Design” creationism find theistic evolutionists too yielding to the naturalistic (or, as they see it, atheistic) worldview of the sciences. Theistic evolutionists are seen by this crowd as weak-kneed believers, willing to cast aside a literal reading of the Bible at the nod of the scientist. And yet on the other hand, naturalists, atheists, and agnostics tend to think that theistic evolutionism is just creationism-lite. It is creationism minus the flood and the big boat full of animals. Richard Dawkins famously argued that “theistic evolution is a superfluous attempt to smuggle God in by the back door” (1986, 316). And as Philip Johnson puts it, whenever theistic evolutionists “postulate a supernatural directing force in evolution, they violate the rules of methodological naturalism and are no more welcome in scientific discussions than outright creationists” (1996).

Poor theistic evolutionists! They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t! I sympathise with the theistic evolutionists, as I myself also find it difficult to make friends. Having said that, I fear that the cause may be identical in each case: an unappealing cocktail of deep and irreparable flaws.

In this paper, I want to look at just one of those flaws. The flaw is related to anthropocentrism. I will argue that the anthropocentrism of theistic evolutionism cannot be squared with the extinction of several species of Homo within the last 50,000 years. Most importantly, the extinction of two subspecies (Homo Sapiens Denisova and Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis) is strong evidence against the existence of an anthropocentric god. The argument, as I will develop it, runs roughly like this: If God used evolution in order to produce human beings, then he had produced at least three distinct subspecies circa 50,000BCE. However, two of these were allowed to collapse into extinction before the modern day. Therefore, it is implausible that there exists a God who has an important aim to create Homo sapiens.

The Great Retreat

Why be a theistic evolutionist anyway? One reason might be the consideration that scientific explanations are eminently successful. And “whenever scientific knowledge advances,” writes Maarten Boudry, “religion is forced to retreat.” (2015, 3.4). The so-called “god of the gaps” shrinks each time one of those gaps in our scientific ignorance is filled in. If that is right, then a good way to avoid any future error would be to take God out of as many gaps as possible, restricting his role to something immune from the advance of science.

Take the era before Darwin. It would have been quite natural to accept, as many people did, that the various species had emerged by an act, or several acts, of divine creation. No competing explanation was any better. No competing explanation made successful predictions. And in reality, there weren’t really any truly competitive naturalistic explanations anyway. Yet after Darwin, special creation lost its footing to the superior explanatory power of natural selection. This is just a statement of historical fact. We can draw an example of this superior explanatory power directly from Darwin's Origin:

New Zealand possesses two bats found nowhere else in the world: Norfolk Island, the Viti Archipelago, the Bonin Islands, the Caroline and Marianne Archipelagoes, and Mauritius, all possess their peculiar bats. Why, it may be asked, has the supposed creative force produced bats and no other mammals on remote islands? On my view this question can easily be answered; for no terrestrial mammal can be transported across a wide space of sea, but bats can fly across. (201, 351)

It's an elegant explanation that appeals to our common sense understanding of basic physical processes in order to explain an unusual phenomenon which would otherwise be puzzling. That puzzling phenomenon is why the distribution of mammals is such that bats are the only ones found on remote (and usually volcanic) islands? Now, one could, of course, develop some very odd theology to account for the uneven biogeographical distribution of mammals (for example, you might hypothesize that God thought that islands were ugly if they contained terrestrial mammals). But such a change to one's theology would be both ad hoc and self-undermining.

This is just one example of the great retreat. Before Darwin, there was a gap in which God could be squeezed. After Darwin, this gap gets filled in with a naturalistic explanation, and the god who was hiding there must leave. Where scientific knowledge advances, religion must retreat. Where naturalistic theories gain ground, supernaturalistic theories must flee and regroup. So, reasons the theistic evolutionist, why not embrace the naturalistic story of science, while restricting God's role to something like a grand designer or an intelligent being who may intervene in the natural processes, but in scientifically undetectable ways?

Indeed, many modern liberal theists are underwhelmed by this scientistic approach to God. Sure, say the liberal theists, if we assumed that theism was a scientific hypothesis, then of course that hypothesis would be a failure. And sure, if we assumed that the aim of religious belief was to explain puzzling evidence, then of course it would fall short. But should we think of God like this? Should we treat the term “God” in the very same way that we treat terms like “neutrino” or “viscosity”? As Clark writes:

“Religious believers who claim God as a scientific hypothesis may find their beliefs squeezed by increases in scientific knowledge. But if God is not a scientific hypothesis in competition with other scientific hypotheses, belief in God will be untouched by increases in scientific knowledge” (2014, 77)

When we treat theism as a scientific hypothesis, then it may indeed fail on scientific grounds. But rather than inferring that theism is therefore a failure, we could infer that theism is not playing the same game as science. Alvin Plantinga's sardonic prose makes the point more elegantly:

When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, Moses didn’t say, “Hey, look at that weird bush! It's on fire but isn’t burning up! And listen to those sounds coming out of it! What's the best explanatory hypothesis I can think of? Perhaps there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, wholly good being who created the world, and he is addressing me from that bush. (1996, 17)

The story goes, for the liberal theist at least, that scientific advances may change our beliefs about God's nature or God's behaviour, without threatening our belief that God exists (Clark 2014, 61). Science can show that God did not make each species in a special act of creation. Science can show that God did not flood the entire globe at any point in human history. Science can show that God did not hold the sun still for Joshua. But none of this shows that God does not exist.

Yet the bare statement that a God exists is not particularly informative. And through all this retreating from science, the liberal theist seems to have backed her way into a redundant kind of deism. God exists, she says. God is the transcendent cause of the universe, she says. But apart from these platitudes, God's actions are never seen and God's intentions are never really clear. Well, that's hardly satisfying! There must be more to the story.

More than Deism

Theistic evolutionists are committed to more than a vacuous deism. They want to answer the questions of what God's will is, and when and how it is done. Although it is a very interesting question, I don’t want to linger on the questions concerning when or how God's will is supposed to affect the history of human evolution.

Clark provides four possible models of God's action in a world which contains some degree of randomness, each of which he has given a delightfully playful name: 1. God as a “Riverboat Gambler”, 2. God as a “Chess Master”, 3. God as “Santa Claus”, and 4. the God of the Philosophers (2014, 114).

There is, however, one point that may be clarified. It is sometimes said that evolutionary mechanisms, such as natural selection and genetic drift, operate on random genetic mutations. If these mutations are truly random, then it is a contradiction to also hold that these mutations depend on God's will. But luckily for the theistic evolutionist, the “randomness” that biologists speak of in this case is a rather loose turn of phrase. Genetic mutations are described as “random” only in the sense that they do not occur in order to fulfil the needs of that organism. Mutations are not fundamentally unpredictable, undetermined, or inexplicable. There are always deterministic biochemical processes that explain such mutations. So, by “random”, the biologist only wishes to suggest that mutations do not arise in response to an organism's needs.

The question that I want to address is what theistic evolutionists think we can infer about God's will. After all, the theistic evolutionist thinks that the biological evidence is relevant to theology. The evolutionary story does tell us something about God's will. So, an evolutionarily informed natural theology is at the heart of the theistic evolutionist's programme. And what does the evolutionary story tell us about the will of God? Haarsma says that our current scientific evidence “points strongly to God using the natural process of evolution to create Homo Sapiens in common descent with other species” (2017, 111). As I noted earlier, Francis Collins argued that “God had a specific plan for the arrival of humankind on the scene, and … He had a desire for personal fellowship with humans”. Keith Ward argues that the very existence of an intelligent creator “would raise the probability that the process would result in intelligent life by an enormous amount. In fact it would make it virtually certain, as opposed to being one possibility among others” (2008, 37). This is another way of saying that the likelihood of intelligent life if there were a god is nearly 1.

Ward's argument is interesting, since it appeals to the likelihoods of two competing hypotheses: atheism and theism. He invites us to ask what the likelihood is that we would find intelligent life in a universe without an intelligent creator. It is not high, he contends, since on the assumption of atheism, this universe is just one possible way the universe could be. He then asks what the likelihood is that we would find intelligent life in a universe with an intelligent creator. Well, the likelihood would be very high, since we would expect an intelligent creator, if one existed, to create a universe containing intelligent life. Of course, this argument deals only in likelihoods, not in probabilities, and so the argument cannot do much for us until we assess what the prior probability of each hypothesis is. If the prior probability of theism is miniscule, and the prior probability of atheism is quite high, this argument may not be able to show that theism is more probable than atheism.

But I am willing to put to the side quibbles about Bayesian calculations in order to focus on the general conclusion made by the theistic evolutionists. They almost all conclude that the generation of anatomically modern humans was not merely one of the divine designer's intentions. Instead, the creation of intelligent life was paramount on the creator's wishlist. I must confess, I am not entirely sure why this conclusion has been arrived at. Perhaps I am simply not sensitive enough to the nature of the available evidence, but I can’t help but think of J. B. S. Haldane's famous observation about an “inordinate fondness for beetles”:

The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles, on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, … as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. (1949, 248)

Despite my own failure to come to terms with the anthropocentrism of theistic evolutionism, it is nevertheless a commonly held view. God exists, the idea goes, and He has an inordinate fondness for intelligent life. But what should we expect if God does indeed have such an inordinate fondness? This is, I believe, where an important distinction can be made between two kinds of luck.

According to Haldane, if God were anthropocentric, then where we see 300,000 species in the genus Coleoptera, we should see 300,000 species in the genus Homo. Where we see millions of beetles for every human being, we should see the reverse. Haldane takes the preponderance of beetles to mean something like “beetles got suspiciously lucky”. I am calling this maximization luck. But it seems that theistic evolutionists see things a little differently. For those like Ward, Collins, or May, we should not expect the maximization or proliferation of Homo. Rather, we should expect an unlikely chain of events that secures the survival of Homo in our evolutionary history. Theistic evolutionists take the unlikely chain of events (not the raw numbers) as the reason to say “Homo sapiens got very lucky”.

Think of a vending machine. Now consider two people, Barbara and Dennis. Barbara goes to the vending machine to buy a chocolate bar. She puts a coin in, when suddenly the dispensing mechanism jams open and out fall twenty Mars bars. We would say, without hesitating, that Barbara got lucky. Now Dennis goes to the vending machine to buy a chocolate bar. He pats his pockets and finds he is without coins. But there on the ground, right by his feet, is a coin! He puts the coin in, when suddenly the dispensing mechanism jams shut! Not a single Mars bar falls. He bangs on the glass a couple of times before sighing and walking off. But just as he walks away, an earthquake violently shakes the ground, unjamming the dispenser, and down pops a Mars bar! In this case, just like Barbara's case, we would call Dennis “lucky”. In Barbara's case, one event inevitably led to a preponderance of something valuable, whereas in Dennis’ case, several unlikely events conspired to produce something valuable (its quantity is not at issue).

We might call this latter sort of luck Charlie Bucket luck. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an incredibly unlikely chain of events must occur in order for Charlie to discover the last golden ticket and go on to inherit the Wonka factory. Charlie's story is totally unlike the stories of the four wealthy and gluttonous children, who are able to scoff hundreds of Wonka bars in their quests to find the ticket. But the odds were stacked against Charlie, who could afford only two bars after finding a fifty-pence piece in the snow. So, we can say something like Charlie's success was “miraculous” or that it “went against all odds”. Charlie Bucket luck alerts us to the fact that the success of some person or group is so unlikely as to be suspicious or requiring further explanation. So, it may be the case that although beetles got lucky, their luck was maximization luck. It was not improbable that beetles would dominate the globe (because, say, of some single event in the evolutionary process which would favour beetle production). On the other hand, it is entirely anomalous that even a single species of Homo should flourish. That's Charlie Bucket luck a suspicious sort of luck that gives us pause to consider what the real explanation is.

As we will see, however, theistic evolution is no good hypothesis, because the genus Homo has had neither maximization luck nor Charlie Bucket luck

Just the Facts Ma’am

What are the relevant facts about our evolutionary history that will allow us to determine the nature of the creator and his workings in the world? Allow me to quote May at some length:

All races and tribes of the modern-day Homo sapiens who live outside Africa or north of the Sahara are descendants of a single group from Northeast Africa who emigrated from Africa about 70,000 years ago. Shortly after this group of Homo sapiens emigrated from Africa, about 55,000–60,000 years ago, they interbred with the Neanderthal Homo neanderthalensis in the Near or Middle East. Hence, all non-Africans today have about 2% of their genetic material from the Neanderthals. This introgression of Neanderthal DNA into modern human genome brought us many advantages, such as an improvement of our immune system and an expansion of our genetic diversity, which had been drastically reduced in the course of emigration from Africa. This improvement of the immune system and expansion of genetic diversity was certainly necessary for the survival of the Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa; because outside Africa, many unknown pathogens were threatening them. To acquire comparable genes through normal evolution would have taken a lot of time; and presumably this emigration would have been as unsuccessful as the previous emigrations of Homo sapiens from Africa. Without this interbreeding with the Neanderthal the emigration of Homo sapiens from Africa would probably not have lasted, and today there would be Homo sapiens only on the African continent. (2021, 26)

That is mostly correct. But the same story may be told differently, with a little more sympathy for the Neanderthals. It might go like this: Anatomically modern humans left Africa. They met some very distant cousins. They made some babies together. The cousins were then wiped out around 31,000 years ago (Slimak et al. 2011). How were Neanderthals wiped out? The most popular current theories suggest that they were outcompeted by the invading Homo sapiens from the south. We, the Africans, were responsible for their demise.

What is important to note is that the story May tells is just one part of the story of the history of the genetic introgression of anatomically modern humans. The newest evidence suggests that Neanderthals were not the only cousins with whom we interbred. The recently discovered species Homo sapiens denisova (popularly called “Denisovans”) has contributed substantially to the genomes of South and East Asian populations, and, indeed, Denisovan admixture may account for up to 6% of the genome of some Melanesian populations (Dolgova and Lao 2018, 2). Certain advantages also came from this interbreeding. To give just one example, genes regulating hemoglobin concentration at high altitude are Denisovan-derived and prominent in modern Tibetan populations (Huerta-Sánchez et al. 2014). Interestingly, Denisovans and Neanderthals also interbred with each other. The evidence for this claim includes the spectacular “Denny”, a 90,000 year old fossil first-generation hybrid of Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father (Slon et al. 2018, 114).

There is also genetic evidence that, apart from Neanderthal and Denisovan gene flow, modern humans may also carry genes from a third unknown archaic hominin (Mondal, Bertranpetit and Lao 2019, 5). This signature in our genetics is found primarily in East Asian populations. As yet unknown hominins such as these, known only by signatures in our DNA, are usually referred to as “ghosts”. So, let's call this third introgressor the „Eurasian ghost”.

Evidence of ghosts is not restricted to Eurasian populations. Despite the common myth that archaic interbreeding was entirely a Eurasian phenomenon, data from sub-Saharan Africa indicates introgression from an “unknown archaic hominin that diverged from the ancestors of modern humans in the Lower-Middle Pleistocene and remained isolated for several hundred thousand years” (Hammer et al. 2011, 15126). The gene flow from this unknown, extinct hominin has strongly influenced African Pygmy populations of the Congo basin as well as San populations further south. What is intriguing is that this introgression may have occurred as recently as 30,000 years ago (Hsieh et al. 2016, 291). If that date is correct, this would entail that at least one archaic hominin population, call it the “African ghost”, went extinct within the last 30,0000 years.

It would be remiss to give a summary of recent advances in our paleoanthropological knowledge without mentioning the discovery, in 2003, of a relic hominid, Homo floresiensis (popularly called “Hobbits”). This small-statured hominid survived on the Indonesian island of Flores up until around 50,000 years ago (Sutikna et al. 2016, 366). And the hobbits were not the only relic species to survive into the age of anatomically modern humans. In 2019, the discovery of Homo luzonensis from the Phillippine Island of Luzon, proved that multiple relic species of hominid lived east of the Wallace Line up until 50,000 years ago (Détroit et al. 2019, 181). These discoveries have totally obliterated our preconceptions about the course of human evolution, and altogether show that as recently as 50,000 years ago, as many as six species of Homo coexisted across the globe.

In summary, the biologist's understanding of human evolution has become far more complex and tangled over the last 20 years or so. This is especially owing to discoveries made through advances in our methods of analysis, but also to paleanthropology's recent turn of focus to the East, and most prominently to the archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines. What was once a relatively simple story that began in Africa and spread eastward is now a complex web of introgressions, extinctions, relics and dead-ends. Importantly, our current best evidence supports the case that within the last 100,000 years, at least six distinct hominid species have lived. Three were distinct species of Homo. Three were subspecies of Homo sapiens. Five of those species vanished, although not without a trace.

God of Waste

May takes these prehistoric genetic introgressions to be unlikely, and therefore he takes them as evidence for the claim that “the Creator actively intervened to promote the development of life—and especially intelligent life” (2021, 27). One reason for this conclusion, he writes, is that the odds were stacked against it. This is an appeal to the Charlie Bucket view. It is more likely that Homo sapiens should have died out, yet just precisely the right events occurred at just precisely the right times to secure the future of Homo sapiens outside sub-Saharan Africa: “The probability of [these events happening] is negligible. It is much more plausible to assume that the Creator of the universe deliberately intervened to promote the development of intelligent life” (ibid, 28).

Yet this conclusion, as we can see, neglects to acknowledge the fact that the majority of Homo species and Homo sapiens subspecies have gone extinct. And without any particular reason to think that anatomically modern humans were less likely to survive than archaic humans, we have no reason to think that the survival of anatomically modern humans in the present is in any way miraculous or suspicious. So, the Charlie Bucket view fails.

What about the maximization view? The claim that God wanted to maximize the development of intelligent life is a pretty unconvincing conclusion to draw given the state of the available evidence. As we have seen, there were various species of archaic Homo populating the globe up until as recently as 30,000 years ago. But these species were allowed to perish. I find that fact entirely anomalous if we accept that God would have wished to maximize the occurrence of intelligent life. We should expect, at a minimum, the most intelligent species to have had more success than they did. Moreover, we should expect intelligence (and perhaps self-awareness) to be present in a larger number of species than we currently find. So, the maximization view fails.

My scepticism can be summed up by way of a rhetorical question: If God was concerned with the development of intelligent life, particularly as it emerged in the genus Homo (and specifically Homo sapiens), then why did He allow at least three subspecies of Homo sapiens to become extinct within the last 50,000 years? We might set out the argument contained in this rhetorical question more formally as the following:

If God were especially concerned to maximise production Homo sapiens, then subspecies of Homo sapiens would not be made extinct

At least two subspecies of Homo sapiens (and probably three) have been made extinct within recent prehistory.

Therefore, God is not concerned with the production and preservation of Homo sapiens.

But the argument might be made more broadly to address archaic Homo:

If God were especially concerned to maximise production Homo, then species of Homo would not be made extinct

At least three species of Homo have been made extinct within recent prehistory.

Therefore, God is not concerned with the production and preservation of Homo.

I have a feeling that the theistic evolutionist will push back against the claim that God is not concerned with the production of human beings. And I think that the rebuttal to my argument would run in one of two directions.

The first direction will run something like this: God is concerned, says this theistic evolutionist, not with the mere generation of Homo or even Homo sapiens in particular. God is concerned with the generation of a specific sort of intelligent creature who is capable of coming into communion with Him. This is something that modern human beings are capable of, and it may simply be the case that the archaic humans under discussion were not capable of coming into this communion, for whatever reason (they had poorly formed sensi divinitati, perhaps). This sort of view may sound a little unkind to our archaic cousins, but it may find biblical support: “In Scripture,” notes Joshua Moritz, “there is only one designation that humans unequivocally have and that animals do not: humans, unlike animals, are said to be created “as the image and likeness of God” (imago Dei)” (2013, 6). Perhaps, then, this is the clear line to be drawn between our archaic ancestors and us. Although we are the lucky inheritors of some of their more beneficial genetic traits, we did not inherit from our archaic forebears the divine trait. Perhaps the irrepressible religious instinct is unique to anatomically modern humans.

I remain unconvinced. This argument is a very peculiar kind of Homo sapiens sapiens chauvinism. It is almost to say that our very survival is the mark of our moral superiority. As one theistic evolutionist, Ted Peters, writes, it would be to “identify God's gracious providence with survival of the fittest.” God's plan all along was to bring about a world containing “a rational, contemplative, and moral species, a species just like us ... we human beings would count as the crown of creation” (2013, 168). Those other Homo, so like us in so many ways, alas fall a level below the divine grace.

Apart from the theological issues, we have evidence indicating that anatomically modern humans are not special in the relevant sense. Although there is, at present, little evidence concerning Denisovan material culture, there is extensive evidence of Neanderthal symbolic thought, demonstrated by the existence of cave painting (Hoffman et al. 2020), decorative body adornments (particularly the use of feathers and raptor talons (see Finlayson et al. 2012 and Radovčić D. et al. 2015)), body painting (Roebroeks et al. 2012) and by the ceremonial burial of the dead, possibly alongside lithic and floral grave goods (see Balzeau et al. 2020 and Pomeroy et al. 2020). This demonstrates a capacity for symbolic thought and ritual behaviour that is the very mark of our genus. It is this behaviour which we tend to consider part and parcel of the imago Dei. Neanderthals did seem to exhibit what we would regard as “behavioural modernity”.

The second tack that the theistic evolutionist might take runs something like this: to say that Denisovans and Neanderthals went “extinct” is something of an exaggeration, since their lineages live on within us. That is just what the genetic evidence shows. Indeed, one large part of the theistic evolutionist's argument for the anthropocentrism of God is to note that the interbreeding of anatomically modern and archaic humans resulted in modern humans drawing and retaining those genes which are beneficial from those populations. So not only have the Neanderthals and Denisovans lived on in us, it is the very best of their genetic heritage that has survived.

There are two points to be made here. First, not all the genes which we derived from archaic Homo are beneficial. According to Sankararaman et al., our Neanderthal inheritance makes us susceptible to diseases including, among others, lupus, diabetes, nicotine addiction, and Crohn's disease (2014, 355). Second, the fact that some small number of archaic Homo genes live on in modern populations does not change the fact that Neanderthals and Denisovans were substantially morphologically, behaviourally, phenotypically and genetically distinct from modern populations to a degree which warrants categorization into distinct species or subspecies. Thus, when these populations vanished, for whatever reason, it is fair to term these as extinction events. It is reasonable to see these events as a loss in Homo variation.

There is a further point that needs to be spelled out, which is a relevant rebuttal to both of the above theistic rejoinders. Both of the above arguments seem to take it that God used archaic humans as a means of injecting certain desirable genes into modern human populations. But why would a god, who could arrange or intervene in the evolutionary process, choose to inject genes by this method? Such a method is entirely inconsistent with the anthropocentric assumption, since it requires the extinction of some species of Homo. It clearly treats Homo as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. There are other, perfectly naturalistic, ways of affecting the gene pool which do not require the elimination of species of Homo e.g by viral horizontal gene transfer or by exposure to radioactivity. God need not have created a fully fledged species of Homo simply to adjust a few modern human genes. God could have ensured that a virus would flourish in human communities which would effect all of the desired changes. God could have ensured that enough uranium-235 was in the soil near our caves to alter our genetics in precisely the way desired. It goes against the anthropocentric assumption of theistic evolutionism to suppose that a god used certain species of Homo as “spare parts” for others.

In short, there are many other ways that a god could have shaped the genetics of anatomically modern humans, which are far more consistent with the hypothesis that God is anthropocentric. The preventable extinction of subspecies of Homo sapiens belies the anthropocentric assumption. Thus, most probably, 1. God is not anthropocentric or 2. God did not shape the genetics of anatomically modern humans.

Theistic evolutionists will probably not be impressed by the claim that we can fathom the actions of God, even if such actions are entirely reasonable. I have presumed that we can make sense of what went into the decision to allow Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the rest to perish. Almost all theists believe that finite creatures like us cannot pretend to fathom God's ways. So why should this case be any different?

This case is, alas, quite different. It is different just because of the assumption of anthropocentrism. At the very least, we require a definition of “human” if we are to understand the implications of this assumption. And whichever direction we take this definition, we encounter problems. If our definition of “human” is broad enough to encompass archaic humans, then the assumption must be false (since some are extinct). If our definition is so narrow as to exclude them, then the assumption appears ad hoc, arbitrary, or even based on a circular argument (God values modern Homo Sapiens because they are, well, the ones who survived).

As already stated, it seems that what underpins the anthropocentric assumption is the idea that God specially prizes intelligence, creativity, rationality, and all the other hallmarks of the Species Homo. It is these qualities that mark our species as standing in the image of God. Since numerous subspecies perished, and since these subspecies had the qualities of the imago Dei, there is no reason to expect their extinction.

The trouble with any appeal to the inscrutibility of God's actions is that if we assume that God is rational, and if we assume that God is anthropocentric, then the extinction of humans is an anomaly. The most ardent sceptical theist might protest that this anomaly is a by-product of our finite understanding. But such a response would make a mockery of the central project of sceptical theism: to understand God by investigating the evolutionary story. To embrace sceptical theism is to reject theistic evolutionism.

The Great Retreat, Once Again

What can the theistic evolutionist do now? Without any appeal to a convincing theodicy, it seems there are only three options: 1. Reject the evolutionary evidence, 2. Reject theism, or 3. Reject anthropocentrism. The least radical of these options for the theistic evolutionist seems to be the last one. Indeed, it is a position that some extremely liberal theistic evolutionists have already felt compelled to accept.

Clearly, the evolutionary story is one built on daily cruelty, torture, extinction, and suffering that has persisted for millions of years. Until recently, we were unaware that we had coexisted on Earth with cousins like the Neanderthals and Denisovans. And it has only been understood, within the last ten years or so, how entangled our genetic heritages have been. Yet our cousins died out. Entire human species have been snuffed out. If we align God with the extinction of human beings alongside the rest of the suffering that sits at the heart of the evolutionary story, we have crafted a nasty god for ourselves indeed. Such a god seems to fall short of the expectation of omnibenevolence.

But we might turn this picture on its head then. Here's how Peters thinks of it:

I look for divine presence in the unfit. In the battle between predator and the life that gets eaten, God identifies with the eaten. In the battle between species that survive and those that go extinct, I look for God amidst extinction. (2013, 168)

It is an interesting thought, but of course, straightforwardly, the problems with this position are clear to see. To look for God amidst extinction and death is only to recapitulate a very familiar problem. For if we are to accept that some creator guides the evolutionary process for any purpose whatsoever, this approach seems to require an untenably barbaric creator whose purpose in creation is a perverse self-identification with death, torture, suffering, and extinction. We may ask the old familiar questions: Is he willing but not able? Is he able but not willing? Is he both? Is he neither? It is simply the problem of evil.

Similarly, John Haught, takes a non-standard view, which apparently rejects at least part of the anthropocentric view. Humans are not accorded a special place in the history of creation, and God took no active role in steering the course of human evolution. Indeed, the evolutionary universe of God is taken to have a degree of freedom in its development. If we can draw any conclusion about the nature of the creator, it is that he so loved the world that he allowed it the freedom to develop without constant corrections. Evolution is a narrative that is still unfolding. And it is in the drama of the unfolding Universe that we may appreciate the grandeur of the divine. As Haught writes: “Evolution is a risk-taking and extravagantly inventive drama wherein, alongside lush creativity, there always lies the possibility of tragic outcomes, including unimaginable suffering and abundant death” (Haught 2015, 131). Funny that Haught would use the word “possibility” here. The unimaginable suffering and abundant death is no mere possibility. It has gone on, day in and day out, for millions of years.

This is more or less the final step of the Great Retreat. It is at this point that any theological maneuvers begin to look ad hoc. Such approaches run headlong into a particular kind of danger—“the danger of accommodation as distinct from prediction” (Dawes 2009, 141). And I see no more reason to accept these explanations than to accept that God really did keep large mammals away from isolated islands for aesthetic reasons. If our theistic explanation is always custom-tailored to suit the empirical evidence, then it will fit the empirical evidence alright. But will such bespoke theistic explanations be convincing? They will have no predictive power and no extra empirical content over and above the fact to be explained. As Darwin famously put it, theologians like Peters and Haught, in devising their explanations that might save God from his cruel creation, are doing little apart from restating the facts to be explained “in dignified language”.

But the facts are in, and they seem to suggest that humans hold no special place in the universe. Our subspecies is one of only a handful to have arisen, with the rest having been discarded and erased. Where are the cousins who we may have befriended? They are gone forever. The extinction of humans cannot be reconciled with the existence of a god who putatively seeks to collect them. And if that's right—if that's what the data suggests—then perhaps, just perhaps, it really was all for the beetles after all.